Matthew Bourne's The Midnight Bell at Sadler's Wells – review

Matthew Bourne’s new piece arrives in London

The Midnight Bell company
The Midnight Bell company
© Johan Persson

There's a silent movie feel to The Midnight Bell, the latest offering from choreographer Matthew Bourne and his New Adventures company. Or rather, movies plural, given that the show has not one storyline but six, their characters and scenarios taken from the novels of the popular 20th-century writer Patrick Hamilton.

Set in the 1930s, The Midnight Bell – the name of the London pub where these characters cross paths – takes as its subject the anguish of unrequited and ill-fated love, exploring a rich range of emotional experience via interconnecting stories. A young barmaid in love with her colleague but flattered by the attentions of an older man. A couple in a vicious cycle of infidelity and jealousy. The young men on the cusp of a love affair with the potential to destroy their reputations. All these stories and more told via perfectly pitched performances from the ten-strong company, who switch between thrilling ensemble numbers and more focused two, three or four-person dances. What's striking throughout is that, though these characters are mostly coupled up, their isolation is palpable. Even in the most intimate pas de deux, they are alone.

Lighting designer Paule Constable creates an atmospheric backdrop for Bourne's vivid choreography, summoning the warmth and intensity of a pub or club followed by the cold anonymity of London streets. Set and costume designer Lez Brotherston does a lot with a little – ordinary pub chairs and tables are shifted around the place, dingy window frames hang in mid-air – suggesting locations without overegging them. At points the dancers themselves do almost as much as the set in delineating space in The Midnight Bell – the expansiveness of a dance hall, or example, or the cramped confines of a small members' club.

Composer and conductor Terry Davies and sound designer Paul Groothuis are crucial to proceedings, both in terms of the show's evocative ambient sound and the often haunting original music on which the choreography hangs. The inclusion of songs by the likes of the Gershwins, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin succeeds in grounding The Midnight Bell in its historical period and adds some interesting texture, but is also problematic.

These songs sometimes feel like too blunt an instrument, particularly given the decision to have various characters lip-syncing to them, which introduces a literalness that jars with the subtlety of the rest of the piece. The silliness of some of these scenes, played for laughs, is enjoyable at a superficial level but ultimately feels ill judged, taking us out of the world of Patrick Hamilton so cleverly conjured by Bourne and his company.

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